Monday 23 July 2012

Iron Man 3: yellowface casting of Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin or do we really want another Chinese villain?

What have I and the Mandarin, big bad in the upcoming Iron Man 3, got in common? Both of us have Chinese fathers and English mothers. Plus we both look like the giant Sphinx mounted over the Morlocks' lair in The Time Machine ... at least first thing in the morning. Does that make me the Mandarina?

But enough about me.

There's a fuss brewing regarding a brazen example of mainstream yellowface in the pipeline. One of the biggest Chinese roles to arise in a Hollywood blockbuster has gone to an actor perceived as quintessentially English: Sir Ben Kingsley.

The Mandarin was created as Iron Man's arch-nemesis in the 1960s, when Chinese villainy was the norm. Okay, it still is, but Stan Lee had the excuse that he was birthing his characters in more innocent times, when fewer people were aware of the ramifications of cutting out ethnic minorities except to use them as villain-fodder.

While a howl of protest builds and lets the leviathans of the entertainment industry know we're fed up with our constant exclusion, it might be worth asking why a movie part-financed by and shot in China would not gift such a humungous a starring role to a Chinese actor.

China is sensitive about how it's portrayed in the west. There's a history of Yellow Peril hysteria dating from the mid-19th century complete with anti-Chinese riots and lynchings and the 1888 Exclusion Act, specifically aimed at Chinese even if they were American citizens. That's all ramping up again now that modern China is on the rise.

The holder of the purse-strings is now calling the shots. Chow Yun Fat's scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End were cut from screenings in China by the authorities because they claimed the role "vilifies and humiliates the Chinese" (reminiscent of the treatment the nationalist government gave Hollywood screen legend Anna May Wong who they accused of not wearing enough clothes and disgracing China). It's difficult to see how such editing could be achieved without the entire plot collapsing. Besides, Chow's character arc ended with him siding squarely with the heroes. But no-one's taking any chances with millions of bucks and the fate of the Iron Man franchise at stake.

Rumour has it that the movie Mandarin plans to conquer the world through a deadly nanobot virus — shades of Bird Flu and SARS. That could explain the need to cast this as far away from actual Chinese as possible. He may even be relegated to a background role as Guy Pearce's uber-villain Aldrich Killian drives the story. (Why they had to resurrect a now-ancient cold-war scenario in the 21st century is anyone's guess, but hardcore comic book geeks will want the canon, if not the Chinese, respected.)

Talk about caught between a rock and hard place. Damed if you do, damned if you don't.

It's actually a pretty shrewd bit of casting. Kingsley is, like me and the Mandarin, half Asian with a white English mother — he was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in 1943. Yes, India's the wrong end of Asia and on the near side of the Himalayas but, from a eurocentric viewpoint, for western audiences who can't tell the difference, it's close enough. It defuses a little of the anger surrounding the continued use of yellowface and the near-invisibility of Chinese in western society, while placating the massive Chinese audience with a villain who is not of their ethnicity.

So, in his red-white-and-blue patriot armour, looking halfway morphed into Captain America, Tony Stark (Iron Man, once again played by Robert Downey Jr) can safely enact the slug-fest between the old superpower and the new usurper without everyone getting their knickers in a twist. America will win the battle of the titans in Iron Man 3, proving that life may not imitate art, after all.

Iron Man 3 is due for release May 2013.

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